The Open Curriculum

Hamilton students and admissions officers alike extol the value of our open curriculum. For applicants who were restricted by stringent high school graduation requirements, colleges with minimal distribution requirements have a certain allure. I remember sitting in Chemistry class my senior year and dreaming of the day I would no longer have to take science classes. This initial appeal, however, wore off soon after my first semester.

It may seem innocuous to, as the Hamilton website says, “choose courses that reflect your interests,” but prospective students should be wary of the consequences of such a curriculum structure. For example, it is entirely plausible that in an upper-level Government seminar, not a single student has read the classic works of political philosophy.

The open curriculum allows students to avoid challenging themselves by providing them with opportunities to take classes their peers have identified as “less strenuous.” Instead of taking a class that focuses on analyzing Nietzsche’s works, for example, students too often choose to enroll in courses where only a brief engagement with Nietzsche’s political thought (via a quick Google search) is necessary. In opting out of the mental discipline required for detailed study of such a topic, students do themselves a disservice.

I cannot, however, entirely fault students for avoiding classes reputed to be particularly difficult. We are, in large part, heirs to an academic culture that overemphasizes the importance of a strong grade point average. Beginning in middle school, and probably even earlier for some students, parents and teachers conflate grades with intelligence levels and overall success. Although the common understanding that good grades equate to a good future is true only to an extent, increasingly competitive college admission standards incentivize students to put stock in this belief. Inculcated with it at an early age, they have little reason to reassess such a value structure after coming to Hamilton.

Students’ tendency not to challenge themselves speaks to a wider attitude toward Hamilton’s role in shaping their future. On campus, there is a general sentiment that Hamilton functions as a gateway to financial prosperity, one example of which is the Government department’s emphasis on law school admissions. As a result of this careerist culture, students look for instructors who seem to hand out A’s with little discretion so that future employers can see what looks like a stellar transcript.

To the administration’s credit, our faculty advisors are told to hold us accountable to the college’s mission of academic diversity by instructing us to engage with multiple disciplines. While advisors may seem a practical safeguard against students’ temptations to fill their schedules with shallow courses or ones that are too similar to each other, in practice they exercise little control over their choices of classes.

What, then, is the proper way to ensure that students challenge themselves in the classroom?

I believe the onus is on individual departments to increase course requirements for pursuing a major. In doing so, faculty can reevaluate what is necessary to have a firm grasp of their subject, including the study of related ones. By increasing requirements for majors, departments can reinforce the interdisciplinary nature of their fields. Moreover, a basis for this type of reform already exists. Courses that are cross-listed between departments allow students to explore subjects related to their majors. I would encourage departments to add certain cross-listed courses, if they meet the appropriate academic standard, to the major requirements. While complete reform of the Open Curriculum is unlikely, departments can take proactive measures on their own to ensure that students are not academically limited.